Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Her Space Holiday

For some reason, many recent acts which include a greater role for symphonic elements – namely strings and winds – have had a tendency to also be quite delicate. I'm thinking of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Stephin Merritt's The Magnetic Fields or the Scottish chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian. Either due to the composition preferences of those songwriters (likely the case in regards to Stevens' portfolio), or their limitations in physical performance of their creations (Merritt's hearing disorder, or Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch's less than bombastic vocal might), their in-studio efforts include a measure of fragility which can sometimes undercut the strength contained in a more enhanced instrumental vision beyond the traditional guitar-bass-drums rock format. But this week's profilees – Her Space Holiday, Marc Bianchi's indie rock front – buck these trends on their most recent, eponymous release, out on August 16 on Bianchi's No More Good Ideas label.

Bianchi and his band of unnamed cohorts handily dispel the currently prevailing notion that more instrumentally intricate arrangements cannot include a dose of rock power on the 10-track record. Although opener "Anything for Progress" initially appears as gentle, acoustic-flavored indie pop, with lilting flutes and strings, the pace is upended quickly just after the half-minute mark, with its driving snare drum beat and rapid-fire lyrics serving as a early call-to-arms, and is explicitly so, as Bianchi snaps, "come on, little soldier, come fight for me..." Sure, it's a love song, and a relentlessly optimistic one at that, but the tone is decidedly militaristic – a musical esprit de corps that beats a hasty march across the album's first half. It's anything but delicate, and is a persuasive argument that horns and strings can add heft and force to a composition, not just nuance. As interesting is the carefree "ba-da, ba-da, ba-da" refrain at the song's midpoint, much in the same vein as the lighthearted chorus round in The Decemberists' "Billy Liar."

Of course, not all rock-via-orchestra productions have focused on sonic gentility as prominently as the Stevens/Magnetic Fields/Belle & Sebastian set. The Beatles' arrangements only grew louder as they became more grandiose under George Martin's involvement, and Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra was anything but restrained in its decibel levels. And more recently, the exemplary work of fun. on their debut, Aim & Ignite, fused Lynne-style AM pop with Freddie Mercury's muscular theatrics. It is in this tradition that Bianchi dons his instrumental armor.

The following "Black Cat Balloons" again begins subtly – and sounding a bit like Great Lakes Myth Society frontman Timothy Monger – but quickly emerges as an anthemic, gang chorus-driven affair, not far removed from a New Pornographers-style energy. Once more, Bianchi frames his message in militaristic themes – we hear of battles, bombs, and defenses – but they serve as cover for a larger discussion of beauty, camaraderie and bravery. It's hard to believe the barricades are imminent with a chorus that begins, "if we all said sorry and tried to mean it, would that make things cool between us?" Nonetheless, the recurrent snare foundation and swirling chorus inherently interject a sense of urgency, which vanishes just as quickly for the verses, like the hovering cloud of smoke following an aggressive cannon volley. The contrast makes the themes even richer, and sets-up the track's dynamic instrumental pinnacle; it's easily the collection's finest number.

The more balanced "Shonanoka" displays a bit more of the intricacy of Bianchi's nimble assembled players – whoever they are, with smartly plucked strings and skipping flutes pacing his linear narrative. Meanwhile, on "The Hummingbirds," Bianchi laments the fading health of a friend, with an expressive delivery not far removed from a younger Neil Diamond (similar to Mikel Jollett of past New Music Tuesdays reviewees Airborne Toxic Effect). It's completely removed from the hesitating, low-confidence style of Murdoch or Stevens, and once that serves the work well. At the same time, low-register clarinets and trilling violins are juxtaposed with clanging guitars and meaty drum fills to produce a curious hybrid of Peter and the Wolf and the New Pornographers' Twin Cinema.

By the time "Come On, All You Soldiers" rolls around, you're ready to enlist in whatever troupe Bianchi is assembling. Its the perfect material to rally the troops, storm the castle or stampede the alleyways; a unifying call to action in hopes of being part of something special. Whether the unit's weapons are the tools of war, a waving flag of solidarity or a jangling guitar riff is unimportant here. You can feel the movement building across the track's 3:24, as more singers, instruments and energy join the band of frolickers. As the Bianchi's crew explains, it's the ability to "bask inside the freedom of having nothing at all to hide."

The record's second half isn't as rousing as its first, however. "The Candle Jumped Over the Spoon" is sparse and disjointed for most of its 3:33, despite its folksy banjo and cello accompaniment, and "Ghost in the Garden" is a bit trippy and ethereal when compared with the rest of the proceedings. It also sounds heavily influenced by Destroyer frontman/occasional New Pornographers contributor Dan Bejar, most notably in the structure and delivery of the verses.

But "The Bullet, The Battle, The Trigger, The Barrel and Me" might just make you tear up a bit, with Bianchi's twin dedications to his late father and a fictional movie scene. "Death of a Writer" is slow and steady with its moody clavinet early on, which builds through spinning strings and the returning snare march. Closer "In the Time it Takes the Lights to Change" is the most Beatles-flavored, tracking to the Fab Four's later career excursions, somewhere in between "Happiness is a Warm Gun"and "A Day in the Life."

Come for: "Anything for Progress"
Stay for: "Black Cat Balloons"
You'll be surprised by: "Come On, All You Soldiers"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Sheepdogs

Inasmuch as last week's profilees – Fountains of Wayne – looked back to early-'60s pop rock on their latest release, so to do this week's featured act – The Sheepdogs – with late '60s and early '70s-era classic rock on their five song EP, Five Easy Pieces, out on August 2 on Atlantic Records, and produced by Fountains of Wayne bassist and co-songwriter, Adam Schlesinger. And given that this space customarily focuses on full-length records, and that their third LP, Learn and Burn, was released not that long ago in January, 2010, we'll include a glance back at that preceding work to explore more of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan quartet's larger sonic footprint. (You may have heard a bit of buzz about the band recently, as they were the first then-unsigned band to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, after a contest in which they bested 15 other groups. Some of the group's success in winning the competition could be attributed to their excellent, political campaign-style attack ad (see below), which claimed the band the only one worthy of the cover due to their extensive facial hair.

Everything about the four-piece outfit screams classic rock, circa 1972 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, belling their heritage on the Canadian plains. Surely you immediately thought the same thing just by glancing at their photo shot at the top of this page. Even their record label – Atlantic – was and is one of the foremost distributors of classic acts, ranging from Cream and Led Zeppelin through the progressive rock of Genesis and Rush to more contemporary purveyors of the genre like Stone Temple Pilots, Jet and Scottland's Frightened Rabbit. In return for their investment in the fledgling Sheepdogs, Atlantic inherits a band thoroughly grounded and informed by the boogie.

You remember the boogie, don't you? It's usually associated with such adjectives as swagger, strut and groove, and implies a movement inherent in a piece of music that compels dance, or at least an aggressive head bob. It came about in the earliest forms of blues, R&B, rock, soul, funk and hip-hop, and can be heard spanning the pop music spectrum from Fats Domino and Little Richard to the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, all the way up to the Sugar Hill Gang on "Rappers' Delight" or the frenetic "But Anyways" from Blues Traveler. The late '70s disco wave threatened to co-opt the boogie through its singular focus on the beat, but the format proved too shallow to permanently occupy its spirit and left false boogie prophets like KC and the Sunshine Band by the wayside.

But it hasn't been seen in these parts in quite some time, perhaps as long ago as an inspired performance from Prince, or even more distantly, the tongue-in-cheek pop of the Foo Fighters' "Big Me," especially its bouncy bass line originally laid down by Dave Ghrol and long since banished from their setlists. But the alternative and grunge of the '90s were too sullen and misunderstood to have any room for the boogie, and what's followed has migrated to the extremes – excessively intelligent (see Decemberts, The or Arcade Fire, The) or hopelessly uninspired (oh, where to begin...maybe Rebecca Black, Big & Rich, the Bieber) – domains uninhabitable by the boogie. Even the closest link to the heydays of classic rock – the currently disfunctioning Kings of Leon, for whom The Sheepdogs are scheduled open on their now in-doubt Canadian tour – are too tight to ever achieve the looseness required for the boogie to take root.

Fortunately, The Sheepdogs are here to rescue the boogie from life support and inject it with a new dose of vigor and identity. In doing so, both the five tracks of Five Easy Pieces and the 15 more on Learn and Burn are layered in the fingerprints of their classic rock and boogie ancestors. There's overt nods to Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Janice Jopin, Steely Dan, The Doors, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Chicago and more implicit traces of the Beatles and Stones, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and maybe a whispered hint of Dylan or Springsteen. They're the sort of act that would have been the perfect support on a bill with any of those legendary performers, or Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical early 2000's film, Almost Famous. Its the stuff of smartly-paired guitar harmonies, a Hammond organ or steel guitar line wafting about like the aromas of a neighborhood cookout, and blended vocal harmonies, those that are thankfully just shy of autotune perfection. But the Saskatchewan guys nearly always manage to deliver their take on what is already a well-mined genre of music without becoming recidivists or plagiarists.

Lead-off single off Five Easy Pieces, "I Don't Know" – itself the only cut reprised from Learn and Burn – is textbook boogie rock. It's loose and easy, with earthy, Eagles-style harmonies and bluesy guitar riffs and duos. On a quick view of the initial video for the track (see below), the boys' residency in the swagger and groove of the number is demonstrable.

There isn't actually all that much more to say about the song, except to enjoy its breezy demeanor and note how fully it reflecta the group's approach.

It's follow-up, "The Middle Road," points more directly to one of its stable of influences: the more jazzy piano arrangements and hooky harmonies of Steely Dan. Last week, I noted the vocal similarities between Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and Liam Gallagher of oasis/Beady Eye. In much the same manner here, lead singer and guitarist Ewan Currie is a vocal doppelganger for Steely Dan's Donald Fagan, most notably on the number's bridge, as Currie sings, "you're so tragic, when there's magic..."

Later on in the abbreviated collection, "How Late, How Long" displays a bit more southern rock power and tempo. The contrast between its bouncy chorus and more driving verses recalls southern staples like the Allman Brothers and Credence Clearwater Revival, although the latter of these actually hailed from California, not Louisiana, as many believe. Currie and fellow guitarist Leot Hanson trade tangy riffs across the track's 4:08 of run time, but it seems to breeze by in half as long due to its kicking groove.

The two remaining tracks which round out the EP – the opening "Who?" and "Learn My Lesson" in the cleanup spot – display much of the same vision, but aren't quite as catchy as their livelier counterparts.

On "Learn and Burn," there's greater variety of offerings, which is predictable, given the long-play record (LP) is three times as long than the more recent extended play (EP). The relatively short opener – "The One You Belong To" – is a mix of piano and organ you may remember from such material as Beck's "Where It's At" and Credence Clearwater Revival's version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine," and then segues into the more jaunty "Please Don't Lead Me On." The chorus rambles on like Janis Joplin’s Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," with its jangly guitars and springy rythym, courtesy of bassist Ryan Gullen and drummer Sam Corbett.

Following the original debut of "I Don't Know" – not much different in concept or execution than the updated version – the acoustic-fronted "I Don't Get By" suggests Zeppelin, while the title track is really the only effort the group makes that comes across as forced. Clearly a send-up of The Doors, the number's desert surrealism doesn't quite mesh with the looser bluesy foundation of the rest of the material. And while Currie pulls off a decent mimic of Jim Morrison, and the trippy organ part is squarely in The Doors' wheelhouse, its hard to envision Morrison commenting on "all these small talk conversations and Facebook invitations."

On the other hand, the lighthearted groove returns on "Southern Dreaming," with its Tex-Mex flavored riffs, something less Santana and more of their contemporaries in Los Lonely Boys' "How Far is Heaven?" Meanwhile, "Soldier Boy" is more hard rocking and plucky, and sets the stage for the jammy "Catfish 2 Boogaloo," which at 4:09 is the longest cut on either record.

"Rollo Tomasi" could have easily appeared Chicago's seminal early work before the death of frontman Terry Kath, with its rolling piano, muted horns and R&B-style chorus, and is a fitting homage to that group's importance in the late '60s. Similarly, "Suddenly" harks back to the vocal harmonies and acoustic foundation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, before seamlessly kicking into the groovy, yet edgy "Baby, I Won't Do You No Harm." Somehow, it links a group like populist The Lovin' Spoonful with heavier elements of the hard rock and metal traditions.

Come for: "I Don't Know"
Stay for: "How Late, How Long"
You'll be surprised by: "The Middle Road"

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fountains of Wayne

Imagine it's Super Bowl Sunday 1997 (Super Bowl XXXI, to be precise, where Brett Farve's Packers bested Drew Bledsoe's Patriots), and you're at the War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y. (which would be renovated and renamed Blue Cross Arena the next year) to see the Smashing Pumpkins for the second time on their landmark Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness Tour (the same tour which included the overdose of touring keyboardist/drummer Jonathan Melvoin and arrest of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain). Amid this backdrop, you'd think the opening band would hardly be one of the notable highlights. And yet, on that night, a crisp, pop-rock act quartet from New York, N.Y. aptly set the stage – not only for the then-peaking Pumpkins – but also for their own career, one that would ultimately extend much longer than the prog-rock headliners. That opening band your blogger encountered nearly a decade and a half ago was, of course, this week's profilees – Fountains of Wayne – who released their fifth full-length studio production, Sky Full of Holes, on August 2 on Yep Rock Records.

You've probably heard much more material from Fountains of Wayne and it's composite members than you realize. Not only did their debut, self-titled in release in 1996 – which they were promoting on that tour with the Smashing Pumpkins – fostered two relatively popular singles on '90s alternative radio in "Radiation Vibe" and "Sink to the Bottom." Meanwhile, the tongue-in-cheek "Stacey's Mom" off the group's signature Welcome Interstate Managers in 2003 reached #21 on the overall pop music charts. Much earlier, bassist and co-songwriter Adam Schlesinger wrote much of the 60's-themed pop for the fictional band, The Wonders, in Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do!, including the catchy title track. Schlesinger also arranged the somewhat surprising collection of talent of middle Hanson brother Taylor, former Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos to form the even poppier Tinted Windows supergroup in 2009. And he just recently wrapped duties at the knobs for emerging Canadian classic rockers The Sheepdogs, who will be reviewed here next week.

Contained in all this context is the continually steady work of Schlesinger's main effort, Fountains of Wayne. Along with fellow songwriter and frontman/guitarist Chris Collingwood, the four-piece consistently churns out eminently accessible, vintage-sounding pop rock, the kind Hanks attempted to chronicle in his 1996 film, albeit with a bit more alternative crunch and distortion, along with much of the Weezer catalog. Not much is different on the 13 tracks of Sky Full of Holes in terms of songwriting approach, although the outfit weaves in much more acoustic guitar than on previous outings, which isn't a bad thing.

The arch of the Collingwood/Schlesinger oeuvre is relentlessly narrative, abounding with characters – both named and otherwise – events and settings. The same is true here, with tales of summer cottages, high-speed trains and cemetery funerals and the characters that inhabit them, all awash in a hooky veneer of power pop polish. And if classic rock legends like the Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band defined the southern rock sub-genre, then Schlesinger and Collingwood might be dubbed northeastern rock, with references to places and situations spanning from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania throughout their catalog. This background makes Sky Full of Holes' third cut so familiar: the duo's ode to Amtrak's quasi-high speed train along the Northeast Corridor, the Acela (for which the track is titled). With the same bluesy trot of the New Pornographers' "All the Old Showstoppers" or Fiona Apple's "Criminal," Collingwood explores the corridor through the journey of a slightly-bored business traveler with trademark witticism, through lyrics such as:

There's a train on a track, painted silver, blue and black /
Heading to Massachusetts and then it's coming back

And we're flying through Rhode Island, the conductor calls me "sir" /
For your information it's South Station at about 11:22

Even if you're no railfan like this blogger, it's a fitting tribute to one of the Northeast's most identifiable elements.

The narrative expedition continues like a book of unrelated short stories. We hear about the unsettled life of a beach cottage dweller in the leadoff, "The Summer Place," a warning about the failed entrepreneurial tandem of "Richie and Reuben," and the sad banality of a past-his-prime "Action Hero." Across these tracks and others, Collingwood layers more acoustic guitar foundation than he has on past records, allowing lead guitarist Jody Porter to cover the crunch which is recurrent in much of the band's sound. At the same time, Collingwood's nasal pitch is well-balanced counterpoint to the group's persistent glean. With a timbre closest to former Oasis and current Beady Eye lead singer Liam Gallagher – a resemblance Collingwood himself mocked on "Elevator Up" on the 2005 b-sides collection, Out of State Plates – the Fountains' frontman sounds closest to his British counterpart on lines like, "he never gave her the proper respect" off "The Summer Place" or "Acela's" "there's a girl on a train leaning on the window pane."

Solid material finds it way throughout the collection, on deeper cuts like the endearing "A Road Song" – which explicitly acknowledges the cliched nature of a tour bus devotional – the regimental ballad "Cemetery Guns," which contributes the record's title line, and "Radio Bar," where the band confronts the pop culture absurdity of "Stacey's Mom" during the bridge, as Collingwood comments:

They put our song in the jukebox / It was a hit with the drunk jocks /
Even the guys with the dreadlocks sang along at the Radio Bar

It's a relatively sublime nod that while the quartet appreciates the short burst of fame – and likely infusion of cash monies – that accompanied its most successful single, it will not be defined by the fading glow of a novelty number. With more thorough and intelligent collections like Sky Full of Holes in the future, Fountains of Wayne will have no trouble achieving just that.

Come for: "Acela"
Stay for: "Richie and Reuben"
You'll be surprised by: "A Road Song"

Monday, August 1, 2011


Sometimes when listening to music – particularly new music – it becomes pretty apparent when a group or artists is having a good time with their material. And other times, it's pretty clear they're not – and that's fine, especially when that challenge and struggle is part of the artistic output itself. But sometimes, its rewarding to find a band or performer genuinely enjoying themselves, whether that's limited to a specific song or spanning the course of an entire album or concert. This is abundantly clear on In Light, the debut full-length offering from the Lafayette, Louisiana-based quintet, Givers, released on June 7 on Glassnote Music.

Across the record's 10 tracks, the five-piece blends a mix of the infectious energy and wide-ranging portfolio of fun., instrumental and compositional experimentation in the Peter Gabriel tradition and a bit of pop clarity, much like fellow recent entrants on the scene, Tennis. The tag-team lead vocals of percussionist Tiffany Lamson and guitarist Taylor Guarisco provide a refreshing pace on efforts like the opener and first single, "Up Up Up." The world beat rhythms are a departure from the sort of material usually reviewed here, but are thoroughly upbeat and unite the same type of reggae/ska guitar riffs and brisk shuffle found on fun.'s "Walking the Dog." The tradeoff vocals between Lamson and Guarisco are particularly effective here, as Guarisco's pattern indie-rock polish contrasts well with Lamson's more raspy sound. Meanwhile, the concluding fifth of the number's four and a half minutes are nicely framed by multi-instrumentalist Nick Stephan's ringing keyboards and flute interludes, and a bit of crunch from Guarisco's guitar.

Unlike last week's profilees – They Might Be Giants, who offered a compilation of song snippet ideas – the Givers focus on more fleshed-out compositions, none shorter than the mid-album, mid-tempo "Ceiling of Plankton." Although the track's title sounds more like a wayward Phish jam, the cut links quasi-calypso beats and Stephan's flute with more yawning, Radiohead-style verses and choruses. And like other selections across the record, the tune's closing measures swirl about with a combination of exuberance and precision – never an easy pairing. That same meshing of disparate sounds is also located on the collection's second offering, "Meantime." After what starts out as a darker, nearly Pinkerton-era Weezer sound, it quickly jumps over into a more spirited romp for the chorus, and then back again in the verse. It may come off as a bit disjointed in the first few listens, but stiffens up with listener familiarity.

The collection's most adventurous – and enjoyable – presentations are the brisk march of "Saw You First" and the rock gospel of "Noche Nada." The former recalls one of the few tolerable Dave Matthews Band songs, "Two Step," with its pulsing snare and pronounced staccato, while the latter is continually spinning about overlapping and communal choral waves much like Gabriel's best work in the '70s and '80s, with a touch of Vampire Weekend's "A-Punk" emerging in spurts.

Lamson earns a pair of turns out front solo, in "Ripe" and "Atlantic." Her vocal similarities with Alaina Moore of Tennis are most apparent on these cuts – they share a common cadence but not timbre, as Lamson's lines sound filtered more through bourbon than Moore's honeydew-flavored pitch. As for the songs themselves, they fit well within the record's broader verve – spirited and punchy, although "Atlantic" is a tad more reserved than its earlier-appearing counterpart.

The penultimate "Go Out All Night" should be earmarked for the encore, as it's decidedly the album's most ballady affair, although Stephan's wafting Hammond organs and Guarisco's guitar harmonies at its zenith suggest far more classic rock influence than displayed elsewhere. Conversely, the closing "Words" needs to brought further out front, with a near Arcade Fire level of enthusiasm and synergy belling it's wrap-up track assignment.

Come for: "Up Up Up"
Stay for: "Noche Nada"
You'll be surprised by: "Words"